Federal Inspectors General Under Threat
One of the most effective tools for identifying and preventing waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement in the federal government are the offices of Inspectors General (OIGs) at 72 federal departments and agencies. Their stated goal is to “combat waste, fraud, and abuse in the programs and operations of that agency.”
The Inspector General Act of 1978 (IG Act) established the first 12 IGs in 12 different agencies (which begs the question about who was performing those functions before then). The IG Act laid out the following parameters of the IG position: perform “audits and investigations relating to the programs and operations … for the purpose of promoting economy and efficiency” in the agency.
OIGs have proven time and time again to be highly effective frontline fighters in the battle against waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, OIGs across the federal government conducted 6,856 audits, inspections, and evaluations that uncovered potential savings of $46.5 billion, which represents approximately an $18 return on investment. As a result of their work, 5,895 people were successfully prosecuted for criminal wrongdoing, with 1,827 successful civil actions and 5,195 suspensions or debarments.
Some of the IG investigations uncovered extreme examples of mismanagement, such as the OIG at the Department of Veterans Affairs, who uncovered and documented the wait-times scandal. The OIG at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services investigated and uncovered the deep flaws in the launch of the Obamacare website, Healthcare.gov.
To perform this necessary and vital work, OIGs require robust access to documents and correspondence in an agency. The IG Act affords IGs with extensive authority to subpoena all information “necessary in the performance of the functions assigned by [the IG] Act.” In other words, everything they need, without exception.
Denial of documents or stonewalling of investigations impedes the OIGs work and puts taxpayer’s interests, as well as their money, at risk. It was therefore a step in the wrong direction when departments and agencies under the Obama administration grew more and more obstructive beginning in 2010.
The problems became so pervasive that on August 5, 2014, 47 IGs sent a letter to the House and Senate oversight committees describing how certain agencies such as the Peace Corps in 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency in 2013-14, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) skirted and obstructed investigations since 2010. The IG’s straightforward message to the committees stated that “refusing, restricting, or delaying an IG’s access to documents leads to incomplete, inaccurate, or significantly delayed findings or recommendations, which in turn may prevent the agency from promptly correcting serious problems and deprive Congress of timely information regarding the agency’s performance.” Even after the IG’s letter, the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel granted the FBI veto power when the DOJ IG requested certain documents in a memo released on July 23, 2015.
In response to the IGs’ concerns, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced S. 579, the Inspector General (IG) Empowerment Act, on February 26, 2015. The bipartisan measure would ensure that IGs have access to all agency records for their investigations, as clearly stated in the IG Act. When Sen. Grassley attempted to bring the bill to the Senate floor on December 15, 2015, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) objected to Grassley’s unanimous consent request, which would have allowed what should be a noncontroversial bill to pass on a voice vote. Sen. Reid then refused to fully explain to his colleagues why he blocked the measure, simply stating that he and other unnamed senators were “concerned about it.”
Sen. Reid’s opposition to such commonsense legislation drew sharp criticism from both sides of the aisle. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) blasted Reid: “I cannot imagine anything controversial about wanting inspectors general to have access to the people and documents they need to do their jobs for the American people.” Even Sen. Reid’s Democratic colleague Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a former state auditor, was dumfounded: “There is no universe that the IG Act should mean anything less than what it says.” Sen. Reid again refused to detail his objections when he was questioned by reporters on March 18, 2016. Because of this blatant disregard for safeguarding taxpayers’ interests, Sen. Reid was named CAGW’s March 2016 Porker of the Month.
On April 2, 2016, Sen. Reid’s office clarified that his objection was based on “potential abuse of expanding the IGs’ power to compel witnesses (including former employees, contractors, subcontractors and others) to testify about matters under investigation.” Only in Washington does the “potential abuse” of a watchdog cause more alarm than the potential wrongdoing of government officials. Sen. Grassleyresponded to Sen. Reid’s “concerns” on April 4, 2016: “When employees of the U.S. government are accused of wrongdoing or misconduct, IGs should be able to conduct a full and thorough investigation of those allegations. … Unfortunately, employees who may have violated that [public] trust are often allowed to evade the IG’s inquiry, by simply retiring from the government. So, the bill empowers IGs to obtain testimony from employees like this.”
The saga over Sen. Grassley’s bill and Sen. Reid’s vociferous and vapid opposition merely shines an ever-brighter light on the critical role OIGs play in the battle against federal waste. The work of OIGs give Americans a clearer picture into the often seedy world of the federal bureaucracy. The IGs venture inside the behemoth and attempt to save taxpayer money and resources. Their efforts should be strengthened, not undermined.
By Curtis Kalin April 2016 Wastewatcher